#95: Character v Plot 2 – Atmosphere v Redundancy


As you’re no doubt aware, the internet is currently ablaze with my self-inflicted #9booksin9days challenge on Twitter in which, well, I’m reading 9 books over the nine days of my half term break.  It’s been fun and slightly intense – I’ve read books in a single day before, even on consecutive days, but never nine in a row – and has caused me to reflect upon my post from last week on the topic of the character/plot threshold in detective fiction (which has already been reflected upon by Brad at AhSweetMysteryBlog). In light of this, I wanted to explore it a bit deeper.  You are, of course, invited to come along with me.

Allow me to offer the following:

I pounded some lamb steaks I’d bought for lamb cutlets.  Dipped them in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs.  When they were what Julia Childs called nicely coated, I put them aside and peeled four potatoes.  I cut them into little egg-shaped oblongs, which took a while, and started cooking them in a little oil, rolling them around to get them brown all over.  I also started the cutlets in another pan.  When the potatoes were evenly browned I covered them, turned down the heat, and left them to cook through.  When the cutlets had browned, I poured off the fat, added some Chablis and some fresh mint, covered them and let them cook.  Susan came out into the kitchen once to make two new drinks.  I made a Greek salad with feta cheese and ripe olives and Susan set the table while I took the lamb cutlets out of the pan and cooked down the wine.  I shut off the heat, put in a lump of unsalted butter, swirled it through the wine essence and poured it over the cutlets.  With the meal we had warm Syrian bread and most of a half gallon of California Burgundy.

That, my friends, is from Robert B. Parker’s 1976 novel Promised Land – winner of the Edgar for Best Novel in 1977 – and, while out of era for this blog, when I read it the other day it suddenly helped crystallise a great deal of my feelings on the whole plot/character subject.

Now, from both a plot and character perspective, that entire paragraph is redundant – it provides no insight, no deeper sense of appreciation of the plotting or the characters involved, it isn’t one of those moments where a parallel thread is suddenly clarified (“I suddenly realised that the body must have been coated in flour, egg, and breadcrumbs – the killer was clearly a chef!”), and contains no misdirection that cleverly obfuscates the real meaning behind a set of actions.  If you changed every aspect of that recipe, or even removed that entire paragraph from the book, it would make no difference beyond streamlining the contents of the book to those things which are simply relevant to the plot and people involved.

Yes, there is an argument that, by detailing the efforts gone to in preparing the meal, we are learning a lot about our narrator – the care he takes in preparing his food is a sign of the caution he uses in his everyday life, or of the attention to detail that makes him such a great detective, etc. – and so in that way it serves a purpose.  And that would be fine if there wasn’t also a second extended description of food preparation provided later on, and a very detailed passage in which we are talked through every aspect of the narrator’s workout in a gym which equally talks us through a series of actions without any purpose behind them for either a story or character (his physical prowess and strength having already been established narratively through both speech – he talks about knowing another character because they both boxed professionally on the same card years before – and action – that is, he gets in a fight – earlier in the book).

Let’s be clear – this is not me having a go at Robert B. Parker; his books are a lot of fun, but they do help explain why my interest in crime fiction tails off so rapidly once the 1950s come to an end.  More of this kind of thing starts to creep in – how many crime novels do you read where the details of a commute are written down, simply to get a character from one point to another, for instance?  In the 1930s the notion of car or train travel had an aura of exoiticism to it, but these days everyone knows what driving a car is like, and such travelogues provide nothing to those of use who aren’t looking to follow the exact same route for…whatever reason.

As a counter-point, take the following from a novel published in 1941:

Dinner that night at The Firs was the worst meal I have ever experienced in my life: the poorest in quality of food and the most uncomfortable in atmospheric tension.  About what we ate, or were invited to eat, it impairs my appetite even now to think for long.  I still don’t know who conceived the combination of thick white soup, Irish stew, and suet pudding as fare in August: presumably either Mrs Steele herself or Olive, the housekeeper.  Mrs Pippit was definitely to blame for the fact that the stew seemed composed mainly of pepper and boiled beans skins, though, and my initial dislike of her increased. As for the soup and the suet, they appeared to be the same thing in different stages of evolution, and probably were.

There’s arguably a similar level of detail about the food there, but just look how much more is done with it, how much more you can tell about that narrator both in terms of his pompousness and his humour.  In addition to that, it gives a glimpse of the tension in the house, the competency of the other people involved, and lays the groundwork for some potentially unreliable narration where the opinions are jumped to with regard to characters without any direct experience of them (poor Mrs Pippit…).  The meal is even relevant due to its unsuitability to the season, and again provides an opportunity for character insight by having them praise or condemn it accordingly.

The usual caveats apply – at the very least I could be guilty of cherry-picking my books to make my case (in point of fact, I simply took a book that I knew contained some scenes of characters eating and flicked through until I reach the first one) – and any number of contrary examples can be found, but the point remains: the second example there provides so much more that is arguably important – change the quality of the food, or have the narrator rhapsodising on the choice of inappropriately stodgy dishes for a warm month, and a different spin can be taken out of it (even if not immediately – you may need a common sense character to point out the awfulness of it later on, but that still sets up something to reflects back on the narrator and potentially changes our opinion of him).

This is not the kind of character-work I object to, because it throws in so many options for development in both plot and character streams, and this is usually the kind of thing I mean when I talk about the character-work done in the books I enjoy (I’ll tell you now that the second example above comes from Sealed Room Murder by Rupert Penny, an author of whom I count myself a massive fan because of how consistently he does this kind of thing).  There’s a point where you stop providing atmosphere or bringing anything pertinent to your story and instead you’re just filling up space with details the plot does not require – often at the expense of your characters, too, who are required to info-dump in order to fit this kind of thing in.

Wow, I am barely scratching the surface of what I want to get at, and I’m already 1,300 words down; I’ll follow my own advice and stop adding things at this stage, but please feel free to chip in with your thoughts ahead of the next installment.  Doubtless one of you will make my point far more eloquently, elegantly, succinctly, and memorably, and so save us all having to go through this again next week.

12 thoughts on “#95: Character v Plot 2 – Atmosphere v Redundancy

  1. I do agree with your point that sometimes the sort of extended sequence as you quote from “Promised Land” shows character and sometimes it’s just overwriting; in the modern day, there is frequently even more non-plot-related bumph. (“Comes with 16 pages of recipes!!”) I think that Parker was trying to suggest that Spenser had what we might today call “feminist credentials” as he demonstrated in “Looking for Rachel Wallace”, but he was showing, rather than telling.
    To my mind, good writers create characters who have the attributes necessary to move the plot forward and then strive to make them realistic in the writing, rather than creating vivid, unusual characters and then stuffing them into any old plot. I usually find that writers who say, “Oh, the characters just took over the plot and led it in a different direction!” are thereby indicating their lack of understanding of what they’re supposed to be doing, and their books show it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • To my mind, good writers create characters who have the attributes necessary to move the plot forward and then strive to make them realistic in the writing, rather than creating vivid, unusual characters and then stuffing them into any old plot.

      I have a feeling that this is what I’m driving at. Noah, you star – you may have saved everyone a series of 1,500 word wanderings from me as I hack my way slowly towards this conclusion…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I would like to try that lamb dish, but I get your point. Every action should advance plot or reveal the state of mind of character or be thematically relevant. I don’t read Parker, but I know one of the things that keeps Spenser human in his crazy, violent world is his relationship with Susan. Was this dinner date a respite from the hell of his current case?

    In drama class, I talk about how you need to have an action to play, and the emotion comes through the action. If two people use the same directions to set a table, but one of them is expecting a date while the other is hosting a post-funeral supper, the exact same movements will look very different. Action is interesting if it reveals something about the character.

    Clearly, I share with you an appreciation of the classic authors who weren’t so self indulgent that they dropped the story to reveal how to cook or knit or repair a bicycle. Even Dickens, who got paid by the word, was ever and always about moving the story forward. At the very least, we could have learned a little of how Spenser FELT about the lamb or Susan or how necessary it was to have this dinner together.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, the recipe is there in its entirety and you’ve got the time on your hands to try it, Brad!

      I love your point about the different table-setting contexts, and ain’t that detective fiction through and through? You think someone’s setting up a date but, nope, it’s actually a funeral…beautifully put, sir.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I do understand where you are coming from and where you are going with this JJ, but also, have to say, on the face of it, as much as I enjoy detective fiction in general, I would much rather read the Parker (which i have on the shelf) than the Penny (which I do not). It is partly about the style of the author (Parker had a great way with describing food, and I really am not a gourmand) but also because, as I’ve got older, I find plot much less important to me and the idea that everything has to be subservient to it is just too limiting. I don’t mind a little bit of real life to get into a book. Ultimately, to me, there are no rules one should follow, you just have to make them work in your own context, or you end up with constrictive and frankly fascist rules like the ones Van Dine and Knox tried to insist were workable when clearly they were not. On the other hand, the idea of reading a ‘cozy’ with recipes doesn’t exactly get my pulse quickening either … 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • No doubt being too prescriptive with what is and isn’t admissable is a fool’s errand, I completely agree. If something can be made to work within the confines of the crime novel then I’m more than happy for any author to do whatever they choose (I’m a big fan of an unreliable narrator when done well, for one thing). Mainly all I’m trying to do here is explore my current views on this particular aspect of writing that has become increasingly prevalent in recent times.

      You and I appear to be heading in opposite directions, too, Sergio – in my teens and early twenties I was a sucker for Parker and his ilk and loved the versimilitude provided by the detail of cookery, or of routes driven along highways I didn’t know in cities I’d never visited. I’d happily read Robert Crais, say, on the perils of L.A. traffic and delight in every word…but now I feel like I’m on a rebound of sorts. I look forward to us both reaching the apotheosis of our respective curves and crossing over again on the return journey!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “I find plot much less important to me and the idea that everything has to be subservient to it is just too limiting.”

    . . . and so would I if we were talking about mainstream fiction, but the discussion, as I understand it, is about detective/mystery/crime fiction.

    As I have continually maintained, detective fiction MUST have as its primary element a plot, with character SUPPLEMENTING (not subserving) it.

    There’s nothing wrong with good characterization; mainstream writers have done brilliant work with it, and more power to them.

    BUT in mystery fiction character alone, as good as it is, will not suffice; plot comes first and everything else follows.

    Eventually Parker, at some point I presume (never read him), had to have dropped his peregrinations about food and returned to his original criminous storyline; otherwise his crime writing career would’ve been DOA.

    There’s nothing wrong with a little bit (emphasis on “a little”) of real life getting into a story, but it darn well better be relevant to the plot. (By the way, it must be nice to have an editor who would tolerate self-indulgent diversions like Parker’s and still be willing to issue a paycheck.)

    Writers need every tool they can get (which is why I champion the semicolon and the unjustly maligned adverb); for detective fiction writers plot is necessarily the prime ingredient, with what should and, depending on the author, can be well-realized characters striving to resolve a conflict.

    In all fiction, conflict (action motivating plot) is the beating heart of story; without it, you’re left with a bunch of characters standing around with nothing to get them moving:


    Conflict can be a murderer holding hostages or Bernice bobbing her hair, but in mystery fiction tangential detours through, for instance, recipes would seem to be, if not fatal to the story, more than enough to devitalize it, and not worth the risk.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think this where it’s important to be clear about the distinctions typically made between crime fiction and detective fiction.

      Parker writes about a detective, but is undoubtedly a writer of crime fiction – the focus moves away from the intricacies of the plot and begins to involve the wider context and actions of the characters. Incidentally, as his career wore on, his publishers took to printing his books on thicker paper in the hope of making them appear as long as his earlier works. Some of his earlier works are excellent, and he always had a great turn of phrase, but he was undoubtedly less interested in the crime aspect as the books wore on.

      Liked by 1 person

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